Part 12 can be read here
Although I did not understand it until much later, one of the core lessons I learned from Dons Antonio and Julian was that the only thing better than not being noticed was being noticed and then discarded as harmless. It was fitting then that I first met them in a set from a bad 1920’s Hollywood movie.
The exterior of Don Antonio's barbershop may have looked little different from the other businesses on the block, but stepping through the doorway brought you into a museum of sorts. Shaped like the letter "I," the majority of the shops' floor space was dominated by three massive barber's chairs. "Massive" doesn't really do these behemoths justice: they were so large they were practically architecture in their own right. At some point in the deep past, they might have been gilded, but the vagaries of time had taken much of the shine off. Rather than attempt to reproduce something unrecoverable, Don Antonio had simply left the chairs to decay gracefully. They looked oddly like some sort of squatting sphinx-esque creatures, with the armrests machined in great detail to represent winged arms, the base inlaid with an off-white marble in the shape of clawed feet. If Jay Gatsby hadn't been a fictional character, he would have gotten his hair cut in chairs like these.
The rest of the shop was more of the same. Instead of the cheap, modern floor-to-ceiling mirrors you see in virtually every barbershop in America, Don Antonio had opted… for none. If I had paused to consider this, I would have detected a powerful symbol of confidence and control, but at the time I merely thought it odd. The floor was made up of alternating black and white linoleum tiles, and the entire back wall was taken up by a dark reddish mahogany shelving system. A light patina of dust relaxed over the two chairs on the right side of the room, a concession made to the inevitable. Even the fly buzzing about near the window appeared lazy, as if moving about in a thick liquid. It was as if the store whispered to you: come, come, relax, Senor; yes, yes, the world outside is falling apart and so too are we, but at least here we do not take it too seriously or lose our sense of aesthetics. It was a very comfortable place.
There were no radios, televisions, computers, or any other concessions made to modernity, save for the ornate electrical lighting system hung from the ceiling. The four elderly gentlemen seated around a game of chess in the corner completed the illusion. I recall thinking that central casting could not have done any better if they had had months to prepare the scene. As soon as my body blocked the light cutting in through the open doorway, four sets of bifocally enlarged eyeballs swiveled to take me in. Despite the fact that they all appeared to be only slightly younger than dirt, I got the craziest notion that it would have been an astronomically bad idea to have reached anywhere near my waistband. Whatever I had been expecting, this was not it, and I silently cursed at myself for spooking over a quartet of geriatrics. The Mercado must have exhausted me, I thought; only later would I come to understand that my initial feeling had been very much correct.
One of the habits that I had come to appreciate about Mexico was the generally friendly greeting one gets upon entering a business establishment. These four had missed the memo (or perhaps predated it), so instead the five of us simply stared at one another in what was fast becoming an increasingly uncomfortable silence.
I blinked first, and stammered out a greeting. "Buenas dias a todos. Se encuentra Don Antonio?" A quick, visually telegraphed conversation passed between the group, before a short man wearing gabardine trousers stood up and bowed slightly at the waist. I managed to snatch "pasale Ud" out of his response, so I unslung my satchel and removed my sunglasses. He took a moment to tuck his tie into his dress shirt behind the third button before ushering me to take a seat in the chair closest to the chess table.
The man I presumed to be Don Antonio Baranda Perez was thin, with a slightly stooped back and thinning gray hair. He looked remarkably like a Hispanic Erich Honecker, even down to his huge, square, 1950s style glasses. As I settled down into the thick cushions of his barber-god throne, he busied himself with practiced care, removing a series of scissors and razors from a cabinet. I didn't say anything, but it was obvious that I was the first customer of the day, and I wondered what type of barbershop survived without customers. The answer came back pretty quickly: no type. He shuffled to a corner, where he removed a broom and dustpan, and then turned and gave me - or my hair, rather - a penetrating glance. He looked a bit like a man staring down a well, trying to see the bottom. I had been concerned that I was not going to be able to explain what I wanted from him, to the extent that I had considered having him simply shave my head completely. I needn't have worried, because Antonio never asked for my request. Instead, he simply ran his fingers through my hair a few times, as if divining the nature of my previous cut. Finally, he nodded and wrapped a thick towel across my chest and neck. Although I would come to find out that he spoke very passable English, he never said a word to me that day beyond his greeting. Before he began cutting, he mimed running a razor over his cheeks, which surprised me. I had never been shaved by someone else before, and was a little hesitant to allow someone with 1/4 inch thick lenses anywhere near my throat with a straight razor. He noticed my indecision and calmly tapped my chest with his palm, as if to say: it's ok, I got this, relax.
If you have ever been around a master craftsman before, you will know that it takes no time at all to see their skill come to the fore. Whatever else Don Antonio had been in this life, he was on very good terms with a pair of scissors. Every move was calculated and quick, no energy wasted. The entire experience was oddly relaxing, very nearly intimate in a way that I cannot explain. Competence is a salve, I suppose.
Before long the chess game resumed itself, and I was able to keep up with the action when Don Antonio stayed to my right. The most remarkable thing about the three gentlemen seated around the table was that they never spoke - not once. Occasionally one would grunt or cough or blow his nose, but they never said a word. The two playing the game were polar opposites, both in appearance and style of play. The man playing white had somehow managed to herd all of the fat on his body to his gut, where he appeared to be conducting scientific studies on the tensile strength of his suspenders. He had a strange way of waving his left hand after he placed a piece, as if he were dismissing someone. He was too aggressive in his play, and I watched him blow what had previously been a fairly well balanced Queens Gambit, Meran Variation game by pushing his knights too far afield.
His opponent was crisp. That is the only adjective I find ultimately fitting in my arsenal. Everything about Don Julian was precise, from the cut of his clothes to his economy of movement to his military cut silver hair. He was the only one of the four who seemed to keep abreast of sartorial advancements since the1960’s. Perched upon his nose was a pair of severe wire-rimmed glasses that made him look German. He was also the only one of the four who seemed to be interested in my presence, though every time I looked his way, I had the feeling that he had just diverted his gaze. The last member of the trio was the largest of the lot by far. At 5'10", I had started to become accustomed (and rather pleased, I must add) with being the tallest person in the room, but this man was at least four inches taller than myself. He looked a bit like the Major from Fawlty Towers, and appeared to have some sort of a lung infection, his frequent coughing easily the loudest noise in the shop.
Once it was obvious that the fat man had dug himself into a hole that he was not going to be able to dig himself out of with a crane, he graciously tipped his king to the board and stood up. The other two followed suit, and proceeded to shake hands. Even in this act, they said nothing, and the silence was starting to creep me out a little. The three stepped outside, and within a minute or two Don Antonio was making what appeared to be the final adjustments to my cut. He quickly picked up a hand mirror and gave me a 360“ view. In 1/4 the time and for 1/15th the price he had exactly mimicked my cut from the States. As I said, the man knew his business.
After I nodded in approval he pushed a button in the chair and lowered it into a horizontal position. He carefully laid warm wash clothes he retrieved from a small sink in the corner on my cheeks, and I soon heard him sharpen his straight razor on a leather strop. When he was satisfied with the edge, he smeared cream on my face and began very systematically giving me the best shave I've ever had. He was like a surgeon: a little movement here, another there, and suddenly I had a face that had not been that smooth since I was a child.
The process was incredibly relaxing, and my mood wandered back to the question at hand, namely why Staci had sent me here in the first place. These were odd ducks, to be sure, but in their silence I hadn't seen or heard anything that would lead me to believe they could help me navigate the tricky rapids I was trapped in. In fact, this place seemed the last in town I would go to in search of some heavy-duty assistance. Staci knew my problem, I reflected, knew what I needed and what was at stake, and instead of sending me to any of the hundreds of obvious players in the underworld who lived in Cerralvo, she sent me to get a shave from an octogenarian mute. It didn't make any sense.
By the time Don Antonio had finished my shave, the man with the silver hair had returned to sit in his seat. I thought it a little odd that the three had stepped outside to say their goodbyes, but I was feeling really stupid about having come there and was mostly anxious to affect my own getaway. For a shave and a haircut Don Antonio charged me 35 pesos, about what it would have cost me to get a cup of Starbucks, had there been one within 100 kilometers. I shook my head in amazement, and placed a 50 in his hands, thinking that even this was an insult. As I did so, I glanced back at the man with the silver hair, and again felt as if he had only just looked away. Confused and angry with myself, I turned to go.
I don't really know why I stopped. I recall pausing at first in recognition of the fact that I had a long walk home ahead of me, one made even less pleasant for having to be made smack in the middle of the hottest part of the day. Still, as I readied myself for the journey, I kept seeing Staci's face as she recommended I come here. Was I really going to come all of the way out here and not figure this out? I turned back in time to see another loaded glance pass between the two men, and it was this more than anything else which caused me to set my satchel back on the ground.
Don Antonio had returned to his tall stool just to the right of the chess table next to the cabinet, and had picked up what looked to be a drawing pad and a piece of conte pencil. He had busied himself scratching away at something. When I looked at the precise man, this time his eyes made contact - a little too much contact, if that makes any sense.
"May I?" I asked, gesturing at the empty chair across from him.
He waited a long moment before nodding. "Please." His voice sounded like a saw cutting through wood. He allowed me to play white first, but it didn't really matter. He eviscerated me in the first game by using a variant of the Nimzo-Indian defense that I had never seen before. I tried a Semi-Slav defense in the next game that he cut through in about 25 moves, but by this point I wasn‘t really surprised. You know pretty quickly when you are outgunned at chess, and while I don't think I am a slouch by any means, this guy played in another league altogether. He picked apart the last vestiges of my self-esteem during a few more games, before I removed my handkerchief and waved it in the air before wiping my face off.
"Pawn for pawn is no way to play the game," he opined, settling back into his chair. After this many weeks in Cerralvo, I was no longer surprised when I met someone whose English had barely a trace of an accent. In fact, it would have surprised me only if he hadn't spoken my language.
"Pawn for pawn seems like a fair motto for my life at the moment," I responded, looking towards Don Antonio. "What's he doing?"
Antonio flipped his drawing board around and showed me a very fair sketch of a series of sailboats tied to a pier. The architecture of the buildings behind the quay looked distinctly European, maybe Italian. Definitely no place in Mexico, I thought, nodding my approval. "You are very good."
"He does portraits as well. Perhaps you would like yours done?" He leaned forward as he said this, and his look intensified. I felt my blood pressure rise as I searched about for some way to avoid having my likeness taken, the last thing someone in my position needed.
"Um, no thanks. It's...uh...it‘s against my religion. You know, no icons of God's creations, and such." It was a lame excuse, and his smile let me know he was as far ahead of me in this conversation as he was at chess.
"And what religion would that be?"
I thought about trying to pass myself off as Greek Orthodox, but I had no idea it they had a community down here, or even what they believed. Mormonism, maybe? They couldn't have Mormons down here, I thought. Deprived of even a lie that sounded convincing,
I sighed and met his eyes.
"The Church of Self Preservation."
"Ah, I know this one well, as it happens."
"Look...Staci Morelos suggested that I come here today to get a haircut." I seemed to run out of steam at this point, the weakness of my position uncomfortably clear. "But I don't know why." I looked up in time to see his face light up slightly at the mention of Staci's name, and my hopes rose. "Do you happen to know why she did this?"
"Well, that depends. Who are you?"
"My name is Ramos. My rather is Gelo Ramos." I removed my wallet and took out my ID, placing it face up on the table. If he was anything like the person I hoped he was, I knew that he was never going to buy the legend, but I wanted him to see that I didn't come to him completely empty-handed. He looked this over for a fraction of a second and then turned his eyes back to my face. He seemed conflicted tor a moment, and his eyes went slightly unfocused. I wondered it he was having a seizure or something, but almost as quickly he was back. He sighed, seeming somewhat resigned.
"Well, what is it that you need from me?"
I didn't think that "everything" would be an acceptable answer, but I had no idea of how to distill my need into a few sentences, or even a few paragraphs.
"I… am not sure I'm here to speak to you...Staci sent me to talk to him," I said, pointing at the barber.
He seemed amused at this. "I suspect that she sent you here to see me. I do not know why...but I promise you that I will find out. I am called Julian."
"Ok...look..." I started explaining to him that I had come to Mexico to meet my father for the first time, that I was feeling a bit lost in a foreign culture, the whole bullshit story. He cut me off almost right from the beginning.
"You can save the bedtime stories tor the police. Why don't you tell me what you really want to know?"
It was a bit of a relief not to have to continue in this vein, but I felt it was important to rind out which part of my story didn't ring true. "How do you know this is a story?"
This, as it turned out, was a mistake. He slammed his hand down on the table, and pieces bounced up in the air and onto the floor. Molten lava boiled up from under the surface of his words. "Knowing things, boy gringo, is what I do! Now stop wasting my time and tell me why you are here!"
I must have flinched because out of the corner of my eye I saw Antonio‘s hand come to rest just on the corner of the mahogany cabinets, and it was pretty obvious that he had something stashed on the backside. I very carefully relaxed my posture and settled back into the chair, my palms facing down on the table.
This was, for lack of a better word, ludicrous. I was being put in check by a pair of geezers who had probably been alive when Mexico had been ruled by Spain. My temples started to throb, and I reached up to rub them. This fucking town is fucking crazy.
I had apparently spoken this last thought aloud, because Julian and Antonio both started laughing. I glanced up to find him sharing a bemused expression with the barber, which culminated in a slight horizontal nod. Antonio's hand tell away from the shelf, and the tension in the room deflated.
"This is the first intelligent thing you have said, boy gringo. But crazy in what way?"
I sensed his question was a test. How crazy, indeed? I thought. In every way imaginable, came the answer. "It's… look… I know Mexico is supposed to be corrupt and all that, but you’ve got obvious drug kingpins driving around in Land Rovers and living in million dollar castles. Corruption is one thing, but I know you lot have something like the IRS. Every single person in government is not on the take. This place can't be this broken, in such an open way. Why don't these people tear each other apart? I've seen gangs of what are very obviously bodyguards around town. Why don't they kill each other? They can't all work for the same people...how is it possible that the Mayor lives on ten acres when he's never worked a real job? How is it possible that one of the highest ranking police officers in town lives right next to Gelo? Everything around here is too strange for reality.... " I had practically begun to yell by this point, my contusion and exhaustion getting the better of me. "I walk into a fucking barbershop that hasn't had a customer all day and wind up getting a shave from what very well may be a Mexican Sweeny Todd, and..." At this, Don Antonio began laughing so hard he had to remove his glasses and wipe his eyes, and I felt myself running out of steam. Allowing the two to chuckle for a moment, I closed my eyes and concentrated. "I went to a country shrine the other night."
"Oh, did you find yourself closer to the Lord?"
"There were two figures on the altar. You know them?"
"Where was the shrine?" he asked, the topic obviously not one which interested him much.
"On the highway to Melchor Ocampo, in a ravine."
"Well, one of them was undoubtedly la Virgin de Guadalupe, the great idol of Mexico's piety. The other was probably San Gregorio, patron saint of the region. Like Assisi, he preached to birds."
"Why would he... nevermind. I was referring to the figures in the back room. Surely you know what I am talking about, since ‘knowing things is what you do.’"
His eyes narrowed a little at this, and I was struck by how much he could look like an alligator. Still, my comment seemed to finally spark his interest. "Really? A back room?"
"One looked like a cowboy. He was holding a sword."
His eyes sparkled as he took this in. "Then this would be Jesus Malverde. He was, in legend at least, something of a local Robin Hood. He robbed the wealthy to give to the poor during the dictatorship of Portirio Diaz. In more recent times, he has become a saint to narcotraficantes. You pray to him, and he helps you evade the police." He stopped tor a moment, before finishing this thought. "It used to be that only the Sinaloans made shrines to him, and to find one would be to find a statement of territory ownership: this place, she is ours."
"The narco equivalent of the Monroe doctrine.”
"Something like this, yes."
"And the other?"
"What did it look like?"
"Ah...so she is here now, too. Now, si, this is very interesting
Yes, they have made a saint of la muerte. And why not? Why should we be surprised, I ask you? Death is the only god that dares to crawl out of fantasy and into the real world. why should she not be honored? What did you think of her shrine, boy gringo?"
"I nearly shit myself."
"Yes...well...hijo of Gelo Ramos of Orlando Florida, you are right to say that this is not a normal town. If your story were true, I would wonder why your father had not explained this to you. I begin to see why this woman tells you to come here, though. You know about the plazas?"
"Yeah. Well, the two of them, the big ones."
"No, no, boy. The plazas I speak of are for the product, they are the highways through Mexico which lead to the border and beyond."
"Each of the negocios, the cartels, they have control over different plazas. To stray into one which is not yours is an act of war. Ves?"
"The balance changes all of the time. New jefes, new groups, they all come along, and the old ones, the ones who do not end up with la Santisima Muerte or in American prisons, they need some place to go, you see? So they make towns like our Cerralvo, la cuna del estado. This is a place this, like to go to retire. If you want to make a little money, this is fine, but the point is not to - how you say?- trouble the waters. Here, the cartel is the Golfo, and they tax you, but they do not kill you. There are six cities like Cerralvo, only six, all in the north. This is why this town is so strange, as you say. It is a place to hide; this is a place you go to hopefully die before the things you have been denying catch up with you. It is a place for cut flowers to go to die, to rot." This last was said with equal parts anger and disgust, and for a brief moment I saw all the days of his life stretched out behind him on the wall like a shadow: the faded glories of the past reduced by fear and impotence to a state where all that was left was the casual destruction of similarly enfeebled warriors over a chessboard. In Julian, for an instant, I saw what my life would be like in 60 years, if I stayed in Cerralvo.
"So you are saying that Cerralvo is all the bad stuff in the entire country concentrated?"
"Yes, all the bad. But you had to have known this, yes? It is why you came."
I didn't correct him, didn't explain it had been simple dumb luck that had landed me here. His comments explained what I had believed to be contradictory feelings of security and vulnerability that I had detected when the Hammer and I had last spoken.
It also explained the outrageous numbers of obvious criminals in town. An entire town built as a narco-free-trade-retirement-village. Who could have imagined such a thing?
My musings were interrupted by a slight clicking noise behind me, followed by a tiny gust of air. I started to turn and then nearly shot out of my chair when I found a child of five or six staring at me from less than two feet away. He had not come in through the door, which was in my direct line of sight, and I quickly ran my confused eyes over the room, looking for a doorway that I had somehow totally missed. It took me a moment to locate the tiny trap door set into the underside of the mahogany cabinet. What I had mistaken to be places to tuck a chair into were in fact tunnels leading through the wall, just large enough for an adult to crawl through. As I watched, the child handed a slip of paper to Antonio, who read it quickly and then patted the boy on the head. The child then crawled back into the tunnel and closed the trap door behind him. Even knowing the door was there prevented me from being able to detect the tiny cracks in the surface of the wood. By this point in the day, children converted into human text messages barely registered on my strange-ometer, and I realized that I needed to leave, right then, and find some time to decompress.
"Look, Julian..." I said, turning to face him again. "May I return? I have many things to consider after what you told me. But you have been very helpful. May we speak again?"
Another loaded look passed between the two, and then Julian nodded. "You will need another shave again, yes? Don Antonio here is always open tor those who want to look sharp. Come next Sunday, and we will continue our conversation."
I nodded and stood, extending my hand to both. Julian's hand felt dry, almost brittle, but Antonio still had the grip or a much younger man. As I slipped my sunglasses back on and positioned my satchel across my chest, Julian called out to me. Turning, I saw him leaned over in his seat, collecting the pieces of the set which had tailed off the table.
"Listen, Gelo Junior, when you do come back, it would be... for the best it you made sure your father was busy elsewhere." It looked like he was going to say something else, but stopped. After about 30 seconds I realized that I had been dismissed.
Thus I met Julian Volcaste, factotum, forger, runner of illegal weapons, a man of questions left unanswered and answers that did not satisfy, the only man I met during my days south of the border who could have saved me from what was to come, if only I had known how to listen.
To be continued…
Thomas Whitaker 999522
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351